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The armed Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was Ireland's major police force from the early nineteenth century until the partition of Ireland in 1922. A separate civic police force, the unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police controlled the capital, and the cities of Derry and Belfast, originally with their own police forces, later had special divisions within the RIC. About seventy-five percent of the RIC were Roman Catholic and about twenty-five percent were of various Protestant denominations. The RIC's successful system of policing influenced the Canadian North-West Mounted Police, the Victoria Police force in Australia, and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in Newfoundland. In consequence of partition, the RIC was disbanded in 1922 and replaced by the Garda Síochána south of the new border, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary to its north.
The first organised police forces in Ireland came about through the Peace Preservation Act in 1814 for which Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850) was largely responsible (the colloquial name "Peeler" derives from his surname), and the Irish Constabulary Act in 1822 formed the provincial constabularies. The 1822 Act established a force in each province with chief constables and inspectors general under the control of the UK civil administration for Ireland at Dublin Castle. By 1841 this force numbered over 8,600 men. The original force had been reorganised under The Act of 1836, and the first constabulary code of regulations was published in 1837. The discipline was strict and the pay low. The police faced civil unrest among the Irish rural poor, and was involved in bloody confrontations during the period of the Tithe War. Other deployments were against organisations like the Ribbonmen, which attacked landlords, their property and stock.
The new constabulary first demonstrated its efficiency against civil agitation and Irish separatism during Daniel O'Connell's 1843 “monster meetings” to urge repeal of the Act of Parliamentary Union, and the Young Ireland campaign led by William Smith O'Brien in 1848, although it failed to contain violence at the so-called "Battle of Dolly's Brae" in 1849 (which provoked a Party Processions Act to regulate sectarian demonstrations). This was followed by a period of relative calm.
The advent of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in 1858, brought a plan for an armed uprising. Direct action began with the Fenian Rising of 1867. Fenians attacked on the more isolated police barracks and smaller stations. This rebellion was put down with ruthless efficiency. The police had infiltrated the Fenians with local informers. The loyalty of the Irish Constabulary during the outbreak was rewarded by Queen Victoria who granted the force the prefix 'Royal' in 1867 and the right to use the insignia of the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick in their motif. The RIC presided over a marked decline in general crime around the country. The unstable rural unrest of the early nineteenth century characterised by secret organisations and unlawful armed assembly was effectively controlled. Policing generally became a routine of controlling misdemeanours such as moonshine distilling, public drunkenness, minor theft, and wilful property crimes. A Land War broke out in the 1879–82 Depression period causing some general unrest.
In Belfast, with its industrial boom, the working population mushroomed, growing fivefold in fifty years. Much of the increase arose from Catholic migration and there were serious sectarian riots in 1857, 1864, 1872 and 1886. As a result the small Belfast Town Police civic force was disbanded and responsibility for policing passed to the RIC. During the 1907 Belfast Dock strike which was called by trade union leader Jim Larkin, a portion of the RIC went on strike after Constable William Barrett was suspended for his refusal to escort a traction engine driven by a blackleg carter. About 70% of the police force in Belfast declared their support of the strikers and were encouraged by Larkin to carry out their own strike for higher wages and a better pension. It never came to fruition, however, as the dissident policemen were transferred out of Belfast four days before the strike was to begin. Barrett and six other constables were dismissed and extra British Army troops were deployed to Belfast. The dock strike ended on 28 August 1907.
The RIC's existence was however increasingly troubled by the rise of the Home Rule campaign in the early twentieth century period prior to World War I. Sir Neville Chamberlain was appointed Inspector-General in 1900. His years in the RIC coincided with the rise of a number of political, cultural and sporting organisations with the common aim of asserting Ireland's separateness from England. The potential success of the third Home Rule Bill in 1912 introduced serious tensions: opponents of the Bill organised the Ulster Volunteer Force in January 1913 while supporters formed the Irish Volunteers in response. These two groups had over 250,000 members, organised as effective private armies. In reports to the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, and the Under-Secretary, Sir Matthew Nathan, Chamberlain warned that the Irish Volunteers were preparing to stage an insurrection and proclaim Irish independence. However, in April 1916 when Nathan showed him a letter from the army commander in the south of Ireland telling of an expected landing of arms on the southwest coast and a rising planned for Easter, they were both 'doubtful whether there was any foundation for the rumour'. The Easter Rising began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916 and lasted for six days, ending only when much of O'Connell Street had been destroyed by artillery fire. Although the Royal Commission on the 1916 Rebellion cleared the RIC of any blame for the Rising, Chamberlain had already resigned his post, along with Birrell and Nathan.
For the United Kingdom, both the idea of police and the word itself were "disliked as a symbol of foreign oppression", and the state was later than its neighbours in developing police services: the London Metropolitan Police, for example, were established only seven years before the RIC. And the RIC was as a result pulled in two directions. To some extent it had a quasi-military ethos, with barracks, carbines, and a vivid class distinction between officers and men; and it used a dark green uniform with black buttons and insignia, resembling that of the rifle regiments of the British Army. However, it also followed civic police forces in the rest of the UK in preferring to military terms of rank more emollient ones such as "constable" and "inspector"; and there was a gesture towards policing by consent in its attempts to match its men's postings to the religious affiliation of the communities they were to police.
The rank structure was as follows Note: some changes of detail took place over the period:
Enforcement of eviction orders in rural Ireland caused the RIC to be widely distrusted by the poor Catholic population as the mid nineteenth century approached, but the relative calm of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods brought it increasing, if grudging, respect. From the 1850s the RIC performed a range of civil and local government duties together with their policing, integrating the constables with their local communities. In rural areas their attention was largely on minor problems such as distilling, cock fighting, drunk and disorderly behaviour, and unlicensed dogs or firearms, with only occasional attendance at evictions or on riot duty; and arrests tended to be relatively rare events. Despite their armed status, constables seldom carried guns, only waist belt, handcuffs and baton. Often, along with the priest, they would have an informal leadership role in the community, and being literate would be appealed to by people needing help with forms and letters. While "barracks" in cities resembled those of the British Army, the term was also used for small country police stations consisting of a couple of ordinary houses with a day-room and a few bedrooms; premises would be rented by the authorities from landowners and might move between different sites in a village. Their pay was low, it being assumed by the authorities that they would get milk, eggs, butter and potatoes as gifts from local people. By 1901 there were around 1,600 barracks and some 11,000 constables.
The majority of constables in rural areas were drawn from the same social class, religion and general background as their neighbours. Measures were taken, not always successfully, to maintain an arms length relationship between police and public. Constables in charge of police stations made an elaborate series of regular reports to their superiors, and would from time to time be moved around the district to prevent acquaintanceships from developing too closely. A constable was not permitted to marry until he had been in the force for some years, and was not supposed to serve in his home county, nor in that of his wife.
The Sinn Féin triumph in the general election of 1918 (the coupon election), winning 73 out of the 105 Irish seats, was followed by the Sinn Féin members' decision to convene themselves as the First Dáil, a new parliament. This body first met at the Mansion House, Dublin, on 21 January 1919, and announced a unilateral declaration of independence. This created a dramatically new political reality in Ireland.
On the day the new parliament first met, two RIC policemen, Constables Patrick MacDonnell and James O'Connell, were killed at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary, by an IRA raiding party, while on duty guarding dynamite in transit to the local mines. This event marked the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. The Irish Republican Army under the leadership of Michael Collins began systematic attacks on British government forces. While the British Army controlled the cities of Ireland, the RIC bore the brunt of such assaults in the provinces. The RIC were especially targeted because of their role as local representatives of and intelligence gatherers for the British administration.
From the autumn of 1919 onwards, the RIC was forced to abandon its smaller barracks in isolated areas. A national personal boycott of members of the force was declared by the IRA. The Dáil Courts and alternative legal enforcement units were set up by republicans. RIC members were threatened, and many were attacked, leading to substantial resignations from the force (see figures below). In October 1920, RIC wages were increased to compensate for increased hardship and cost of living increases. In rural areas, many small shopkeepers refused to serve the RIC, forcing them to obtain their food and other necessities from miles away.
By October 1920, according to UK government sources, 117 RIC members had been killed and 185 wounded. Over a three-month period during the same year, 600 RIC men resigned from the force of 9,500. In the first quarter of 1920, 500 police barracks and huts in outlying areas were evacuated. The IRA had destroyed over 400 of these by the end of June to prevent their subsequent reuse.
The consequence of this was the removal of RIC authority in many outlying areas. This allowed the IRA to assert political control over these areas. Large houses were burned, often to punish their owners for allowing them to be used for policing or military purposes or as revenge for the government-backed burning of republican homes. Much of the country's rich architectural heritage was destroyed.
To reinforce the much reduced and demoralised police the United Kingdom government recruited returned World War I veterans from English and Scottish cities. They were sent to Ireland in 1920, to form a police reserve unit which became known as the "Black and Tans" and the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Paddy O'Shea, the son of a regular RIC sergeant, described these reinforcements as being "both a plague and a Godsend. They brought help but frightened even those they had come to help". Some regular RIC men resigned in protest at the often brutal and undisciplined behaviour of the new recruits.
Some RIC officers co-operated with the IRA, either out of political conviction, fear for their lives and welfare, or a combination of both. A raid on an RIC barracks in Cookstown, County Tyrone, in June 1920, was carried out with the help of sympathetic RIC men. The barracks in Schull, County Cork, was captured with similar inside aid. The IRA even had spies within the upper echelon at Dublin Castle.
In December 1920, the Government of Ireland Act was proclaimed amid the fighting. The Parliament of Northern Ireland convened. After the Anglo-Irish Treaty was approved by Dáil Éireann, the Irish Free State was formed, from which the northeast immediately removed itself, and Northern Ireland remained in the UK. The Irish Free State became an independent Dominion within the Empire.
In January 1922 the British and Irish delegations agreed to disband the RIC. Phased disbandments began within a few weeks with RIC personnel both regular and auxiliary being withdrawn to six centres in southern Ireland. On 2 April 1922 the force formally ceased to exist, although the actual process was not completed until August that year. The RIC was replaced by the Civic Guard (renamed the Garda Síochána the following year) in the Irish Free State and by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland.
Some former RIC men joined the Garda Síochána. These included men who had earlier assisted IRA operations in various ways. Some retired and the Irish Free State paid their pensions as provided for in the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty agreement. Others, still faced with threats of violent reprisals, emigrated with their families to Great Britain or other parts of the Empire, most often to police forces in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. A number of these men joined the Palestine Gendarmerie, which was recruiting in the UK at this time.
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